TPM Cafe: Opinion

Each month, we are treated to the release of several surveys of consumer sentiment. The most prominent come from the Conference Board and the University of Michigan. Markets and media treat these numbers as vital metrics about the health of the economy and its forward prospects. Investment funds pay for early access to the data. Negative readings are often treated as indicators that consumers are about to pare back their spending, while better reads are interpreted as positive signs for the weeks and months ahead.

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Overshadowed by both international and domestic developments and beset by terrible weather, Texas held the first major state primaries of the 2014 cycle yesterday. In the absence of a lot of red-hot congressional contests, the Lone Star event will mostly be interpreted as a barometer of this or that national trend, with varying degrees of accuracy.

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The Arab-Israeli War of October 1973, known as the Yom Kippur War, led the oil-producing Arab states to impose an oil embargo against Israel’s Western allies, the United States above all. The spike in inflation that began in 1973 followed the oil embargo and its soaring energy costs.

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Once, during my sophomore year in college, a French-speaking classmate told me that he thought it was odd that my Spanish sounded so beautiful—since it sounded so ugly coming from the American Hispanics he knew. It wasn’t true in any objective sense, of course. I’d taken Spanish classes for seven years at that point, but my accent (and vocabulary, grammar, etc.) was more function than form. My Spanish was not more beautiful.

But I am white. And I carry Spanish along as a second language, as an ornament that was one of the best parts of my liberal arts education. My relationship to Spanish has little to do with native speakers’ relationship to the language.

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Like most progressives I tend to believe, in the words of playwright Tony Kushner that “the world only spins forward.” But two books I am reading, side by side, have had the combined effect of making me re-think that notion. It is just possible that the United States is spinning backward and that a change in course — while possible — is certainly not inevitable.

The two books are The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin and Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right by Thomas Frank.

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The deficiencies of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a measure of national health have long been recognized. The responses, however, haven’t really gotten to the nub of the problem.

Yes, GDP only measure how much stuff a nation makes and consumes; yes, how that is defined changes over time; and yes, the production and consumption of stuff can be a great good, but it can also be a great problem. GDP goes up after natural disasters because of the rebuilding, but hurricanes, tornados, droughts and earthquakes are hardly a healthy recipe for economic growth.

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In 1972, at the young age of sixteen, Jigme Singye Wangchuck became the fourth king of the mountain country of Bhutan. Nestled in the high Himalayas, Bhutan is a landlocked country about the size of Switzerland (or a bit larger than Maryland). It sits north of India, south of China, and on the way to nowhere.

The British left India in 1947, but two centuries of their rule still marked the region, and the once and future king had been sent away to English schools in Darjeeling, India, and then in London. He came back to Bhutan as a teen to learn about his future kingdom, which at the time had fewer than a half million people. Most lived in remote fertile valleys in the south. In the vertiginous and steep mountains of the north, the few inhabitants tended herds of sheep and yak. Isolated geographically and culturally—television was banned until 1999—Bhutan was an unlikely venue for a bold experiment.

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In the annals of corruption in America, 2014 is off to an explosive start. Federal officials are investigating whether New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) used Hurricane Sandy relief funds to produce tourism ads starring his family while the Hoboken mayor accused him of threatening to withhold disaster relief money from her city. New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has been convicted by a federal jury of accepting bribes to rebuild a city reeling from Hurricane Katrina. While these scandals in cities historically rife with backroom deals might shrink in comparison to the global spectacle of the Olympic games, they all pose a unique 21st century challenge. They are examples of corruption in response to extreme weather, and such instances are piling up.

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The events in Ukraine have grabbed international attention but have usually been explained by recent history. With the deposition of Ukraine’s President Victor Yanukovich, and reports of people from eastern Ukraine waving Soviet, or, as it is happening in Crimea, Russian flags, while western Ukrainians clamor for Ukraine to ally itself with the European Union, it is worth taking a look at the recent events, which led to dramatic violence, in a longer historical perspective.

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Want to contribute to TPM Cafe? Email ideas for your pieces to us at talk@talkingpointsmemo.com

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